Sustainable travel: How to see the world on the ground
Way back in 2009, I watched the Age of Stupid, the film starring Pete Postlethwaite as a man looking back from the future and asking, why didn’t we save ourselves when we had a chance?
I think many people have a moment that wakes them up to the reality of climate change, and that was mine. Afterwards, there was a Q&A with one of the producers, and someone asked what we could do to help. “Stop flying” was the answer. At the time, I had two long-haul flights booked. As soon as I got home, I cancelled them both and decided that I would never fly again.
At around the same time, I was growing curious about the world and getting an appetite for adventure. A lifelong cyclist, any adventure would involve my bike, but where would I go, and how would I get there if I wasn’t going to fly? I decided there was only one place that would suffice: the UK.
So I set off on my first big adventure: riding the 4000 miles around the coast of Britain. I was curious to find out whether I could experience all the benefits of travel without really going very far at all. The answer, 10 weeks and thousands of leg-sapping miles later, was absolutely and enthusiastically “yes”. I had gained so much from my journey: I had seen new landscapes, met new people, experienced other cultures, eaten unusual food, seen awe-inspiring views and discovered a fair few things about myself. And aren’t these the reasons we travel?
Fast forward a decade, and I have had many more adventures, mostly by bike but also by train and boat. Most have been in the UK, but some have been further afield in Europe, to ski in the Alps, swim in the north Italian lakes, enjoy the culture, food and wine of southern France, and experience the bike-friendly culture of the Netherlands. Each of these trips has confirmed to me that you don’t need to get on a plane to find adventure – and indeed, adventure is much more readily accessible if you stay on the ground.
I now run a charity, Flight Free UK, encouraging lots of other people to change their habits in the same way that I changed mine. It was the IPCC report in 2018 that prompted me to set it up – the report that moved climate change from a vague distant threat to a real, time-specific disaster, the effects of which have been revealing themselves more and more in the years since. For me, mass climate action became an urgent requirement, and that is what I try to inspire with my work.
There are two aspects to our messaging: firstly, to educate the public about the reality of aviation emissions, which tends to be hidden or brushed away by government and industry. As consumers, we need to know the facts in order to make an informed choice about how we travel.
Secondly, to encourage and inspire people to travel without flying. Many people book a flight because they think that’s the only way to get there, but once they realise it’s possible to travel to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Rome, and even Marrakech without flying, it opens up a whole new way of doing things.
Our ultimate aim is to create a culture shift where flying is no longer the default. Our method of behaviour change is to challenge people to take a year off flying, which is a great way to reduce emissions, break a habit and try other ways of doing things.
So, how bad is flying?
It’s useful to compare to other lifestyle choices that we might be more aware of. One flight from London to LA generates more CO2 than heating your home for a year. Flying to Dubai is more carbon-heavy than driving a car for a year. Just two short flights within Europe could wipe out all the savings you make from being vegan for a year.
Choosing to take the train rather than flying saves a whopping 90% on your emissions. Coach travel emissions are six times lower than flying. Going by ferry as a foot or bike passenger is also a great option for keeping emissions down.
Yes, it takes longer to reach your destination, but that’s part of the beauty of travelling in this way – it might be a cliché, but the journey really is part of the holiday. Train travel is to be enjoyed rather than endured like a flight. There’s no arriving hours ahead of time, or going through the stress of check-in and security, or having to limit the amount of luggage or liquids you take. The journey can be spent relaxing, catching up on emails, or simply looking out of the window and seeing the world close-up.
The act of travelling overland gives us a sense of our place in the world, and how we connect to the places we are travelling to, because things change incrementally: landscape, culture, language, food. It steadily morphs until, eventually, we reach our destination, having already gained so much before the holiday has even started. Slow travel is as good for the traveller as it is for the climate.
There are lots of things that need to change in order for people to avoid flying en-masse. The alternatives need to be more accessible and better promoted. Reward schemes encouraging people to fly more need to end, as does aviation advertising. And we need to tax aviation fuel. At the moment, there’s no tax on flying, making it artificially cheap, so airlines can offer rock-bottom prices to tempt customers.
One thing that can help drive this change is consumer behaviour. That’s why we do the work that we do, in order to change things from the bottom up. As more people move away from flying, the market will adapt. We’ve already seen this with new night train routes springing up across Europe and new eco-travel companies responding to an increase in demand for climate-friendly options. As travelling without flying becomes more normalised, it will get easier and easier to do it.
But what about cost? It’s true that there are some extremely cheap flights out there, and compared to a train ticket, it’s hard to choose the low-carbon option. But there are also some really cost-effective ways of travelling without flying, for example, using coaches and ferries. Trains tend to be a lot cheaper on the continent, so once you’re over the channel, it’s much easier. You can also buy an Interrail pass, which can save a lot of money overall.
Government and industry pretend that aviation doesn’t have an emissions problem and that we can reduce emissions through technology and offsetting. That’s unfortunately not quite the case. Yes, there is an emerging technology that might help us to fly in a more eco-friendly way, but the technology is not here now, and now is when we need to reduce emissions. Offsetting is just a way of passing your emissions on to someone else, which is often not effective, but ultimately, it’s not really fair either. In brief, there is not enough land space on Earth to plant enough trees to offset all the flights we take.
Ultimately, we all have power as consumers, and we can all make choices that help ensure a safe and liveable future for all. For many people, cutting down on flights or giving up altogether is the most impactful and easy thing they can do for the climate.
So, I’d like to extend my challenge to you to take some time away from flying and see what else is out there. There’s a lifetime of adventure right here on our doorstep, just waiting to be discovered.
Anna Hughes is the Director of Flight Free UK
Find out more and take the Flight Free Challenge here: flightfree.co.uk